Biography of Lord Byron, English Poet and Aristocrat

“Mad, Bad, and Dangerous” English Poet and Aristocrat

Lord Byron - portrait with his ancestral home
Lord Byron - portrait with his ancestral home Newstead Abbey in background. George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron. British poet 22 January 1788. Culture Club / Getty Images

Lord Byron is considered to be one of the greatest British writers and poets of his time. He became a leader in the Romantic Period, alongside contemporaries like William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley.

Fast Facts: Lord Byron

  • Occupation: English poet, romanticist
  • Born: 22 January 1788 in London, England
  • Died: 19 April 1824 in Missolonghi, Ottoman Empire
  • Parents: Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron and Catherine Gordon
  • Education: Trinity College, Cambridge
  • Publish Works: Hours of Idleness; Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, She Walks in Beauty, Don Juan
  • Spouse: Anne Isabella Milbanke
  • Children: Ada Lovelace and Allegra Byron
  • Famous Quote: "There is pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore, there is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar; I love not Man the less but Nature more."

Lord Byron’s personal life was marked by tumultuous love affairs and inappropriate sexual relationships, unpaid debts, and illegitimate children. Lady Caroline Lamb, with whom Byron had an affair, famously labeled him “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

He died in 1824 at the age of 36 from a fever he contracted during his travels in Greece. His most notable works include Don Juan, She Walks in Beauty, and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Early Life

Lord Byron was born in 1788 in London under the full name George Gordon Noel, sixth Baron Byron. He was raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, by his mother after his father fled the family and died in 1791 in France. Byron inherited his title at the age of 10, though he later adopted his mother-in-law’s family name, Noel, in order to inherit half of her estate.

Portrait of Lord Byron, lithograph by Josef Eduard Teltscher c. 1825
Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Byron’s mother was prone to mood swings and heavy drinking. Due to mistreatment by his mother coupled with a deformed foot and an uneven temper, Byron lacked discipline and structure in his formative years.

He was educated at Harrow School in London, followed by Trinity College at Cambridge, though he spent most of his time at the latter engaging in sexual relationships and sporting activities. It was during this time that he began writing and publishing works. 

Marriage, Affairs, and Children

Lord Byron first showed his affections for a distant cousin who indulged him for a while before rejecting his affections. In subsequent years, Byron had promiscuous affairs with many women, including Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Oxford, and his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, who later gave birth to a daughter widely considered to be Byron’s.

Lord Byron married Anne Isabella Milbanke in January 1815, and the following year she gave birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada (later Ada Lovelace). Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Lord and Lady Byron separated, with Anne Isabella indicating the cause to be his incestual relations with his half-sister.

During this time, Lord Byron developed a close relationship with Percy and Mary Shelley and Mary’s sister Claire Clairmont, who also had a daughter with Byron called Allegra. 

Travels

After completing his education at Cambridge, Lord Byron embarked on a two-year journey across Spain, Portugal, Malta, Albania, and Greece, from which he drew inspiration for Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. After Byron finalized the separation from his wife, he left England permanently for Switzerland, where he spent time with the Shelleys.

He went on to travel across Italy engaging in promiscuous affairs, writing and publishing work along the way. He spent six years in Italy, where he wrote and released Don Juan.

Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, 1838
Newstead Abbey, Nottinghamshire, 18th century. The abbey was formerly an Augustinian priory but was converted into a domestic home following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It is the ancestral home of Lord Byron. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1823, Lord Byron was asked to assist in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. He sold his estate in England to raise money for the Greek cause, part of which he used to enable a fleet of ships to sail to Missolonghi, where he planned to help attack the Turks.

Death

While in Missolonghi, Lord Byron contracted a fever and died at the age of 36. His heart was removed and buried in Missolonghi, and his body was returned to England. His burial at Westminster Abbey was denied, so Byron was buried in his family tomb in Newstead. He was deeply mourned in England and in Greece. 

Legacy

After spurning his initial affections, Lady Caroline Lamb labeled Lord Byron “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” a statement that stuck with him for life and beyond. Because of his generous financial support and acts of bravery in the Greek Wars of Independence, Lord Byron is widely considered to be a Greek national hero. However, his true legacy is the collection of work he left behind.

Don Juan

Don Juan is a satirical epic poem written by Lord Byron during the last years of his life. It is based on the legendary womanizer Don Juan, though Lord Byron reversed these character traits to make Don Juan easily susceptible to seduction. The poem is considered to be a reflection of Byron’s personal character and the disappointment with which he felt constantly burdened. Don Juan is comprised of 16 completed sections, called cantos and a final, 17th canto that remained unfinished at the time of Byron’s death in 1824.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Written and released between 1812 and 1818, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage tells the story of a young man who travels the world to fill the void left by disillusionment and sadness he feels as a result of the revolutionary wars on the European continent. Much of the content in Childe is derived from Byron’s personal travels from Portugal to Constantinople.

Sources

  • Byron, George Gordon. Don Juan. Pantianos Classics, 2016.
  • Byron, George Gordon, and Jerome J. McGann. Lord Byron, the Major Works. Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Eisler, Benita. Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame. Vintage Books, 2000.
  • Galt, John. The Life of Lord Byron. Kindle ed., 1832.
  • MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. John Murray, 2014.